WHAT IS LINDY HOP?
Lindy Hop is a couple dance with its origin in 1930’s and 40’s Harlem, New York. It is an African-American dance in its inception (although it grew so popular that many different types of people learned to do it) and it grew out of many smaller jazz dances that preceded it, coming together to become what has been called America's folk dance.
It was and is first and foremost a social dance, practiced in the ballrooms of Harlem, notably the legendary Savoy Ballroom, "the home of happy feet", where dancers of all races came to dance. It is also a competition and performance dance and it gained great popularity via the annual Harvest Moon Ball competition as well as through its many depictions on stage & film.
While the dance moved out of the broader popular culture after WWII with the advent of Bebop and then Rock & Roll, the twist, & myriad other cultural changes, it survived within black cultures and families and evolved into many regional "fast dances" such as Chicago Steppin', DC Hand Dancing, Philly Bop, & DFW Swingout & more which are still popular today. In California, many of the white Lindy Hoppers who performed in the old movies evolved the Lindy Hop into West Coast Swing which is now done all over the country.
In the 1980's there began to be a resurgence of interest in the Lindy Hop in pockets around the world - not just its home in NYC, but also out in LA, in London, & in Stockholm, Sweden among other places. Enthusiasm for the Lindy Hop spread and grew through exposure to old film clips of the dance and through connections with some of Lindy Hop's original masters - notably the great Frankie Manning.
Frankie Manning at 94 years old
Frankie Manning was possibly the greatest Lindy Hopper to ever do the dance. As a young dancer at the Savoy Ballroom, he became the lead choreographer for the famed Whitey's Lindy Hoppers. He not only performed on stage and film for many years before heading off to WWII, he later returned to Lindy Hop after a 31-year career at the post office, teaching students and spreading the dance literally all over the world until the age of 94!
To get a sense of what the Lindy Hop was like back in the day, take a look at some of the classic clips of Lindy Hop from the movies in the 20's, 30's, & 40's.
A quick note about watching old clips:
A lot of old jazz clips, especially the ones with black performers, are shot through with a generous dose of racism. Some show the dancers in a more respectful light than others, but opportunities for black artists to be on film were scarce back then and their integrity was almost always compromised to some degree by the forced adherence to racist tropes and stereotypes.
For example in After Seben, the protagonist in the film is a blackface performer acting out a lot of those tropes. At the same time though, in this short clip from the film we get to see an early image of “Shorty” George Snowden, pioneer of the Lindy Hop and Frankie Manning’s inspiration, showing the break-away charleston that became the swing out.
Even in Hellzapoppin’, perhaps the greatest piece of Lindy Hop ever put on film, the premise of servants running from everywhere to the siren call of the conga drums and the amused white onlookers served to denigrate the abilities of these amazing dancers. And still the clip was cut out of the movie when it was shown in the south - even servants dancing that well couldn't be shown if they were black.
And so it is that many of these clips are a mixed blessing to be taken with a grain of salt, something beautiful with something ugly. The costumes or the gestures can be racist and unappealing while the ability of these performers is unquestionably great and rarely matched even to this day. In presenting these clips it is our hope that you can look beyond the negative elements to see those performers for their ability, their art, and their inspiration. Regardless of (indeed often despite) the context in which it was presented we think the quality of the dancing speaks for itself and demands to be respected for what it is - great art.
AFTER SEBEN - 1929
This clip features what is generally considered to be the first example of the Lindy Hop on film. Vaudevillian James Barton in blackface introduces three couples the third of which is "Shorty" George Snowden and a very young looking girl identified only as "Little Bea". This may not be exactly the Lindy Hop as we think of it today, they even end it with a Cakewalk, but it's a start. Appropriately enough the band is Chick Webb's.
A DAY AT THE RACES - 1937
Whitey's Lindy Hoppers were without question the best performance swing dance group ever. Shown here in a clip from a Marx Brothers movie, the dancers in order of appearance are: Dorothy Miller & Johnny Ennis, Leon James & Norma Miller, Snookie Beasley & Willa Mae Ricker and Ella Gibson & George Greenidge. Norma Miller is actually still with us - at 99 years of age she still travels to swing events all around the world!
HELLZAPOPPIN' - 1941
Hellzapoppin' was a zany, madcap comedy but amid all this madness is the best Lindy Hop performance ever put to film. Whitey's Lindy Hoppers at the peak of their powers here. The dancers, in order, are: William & Mickey Downes, Billy Ricker & Norma Miller, Al Minns & Willa Mae Ricker, Ann Johnson & Frankie Manning. The Musicians are Slim Gaillard (Piano/Guitar), Slam Stewart (Bass), Rex Stewart (Trumpet), Elmer Fane (Clarinet), Jap Jones (Trombone), C.P. Jones (Drums)
THE SPIRIT MOVES - 1950'S
The Spirit Moves was a documentary compiled by the French ballet dance Mura Dehn. She took some of the only video footage of social dancing in the famous Savoy Ballroom, Lindy Hop's Mecca in Harlem, the "Home of Happy Feet". This is the ballroom where Shorty George and later Frankie and Whitey's Lindy Hoppers honed their skills. This clip is of a later generation of Savoy dancers practicing their steps for the Harvest Moon Ball contest.